BACH DIED two hundred and nineteen years ago yesterday. During the past sixty years, it has seemed as if his death has been mourned anew-if not consciously, at least through the aweful, though belated, recognition of the importance of his work. Only a few years before the turn of the century, however, Bach ad not stood in such repute. To the romantic of the 19th century, he represented formalism and meshed wit last glimmers of the Baroque-were no longer in style. Composers were writing symphonies instead of cantatas. Bach's Polyphony was dead.
Even during his own lifetime, Bach long stood low on the list of important composers. His contemporaries placed both Telemann and Handle above him. They considered him primarily the virtuoso organist. The last days of church concert music left Bach with an often insurmoutable penury of players and singers. He must often have felt the decline of contemporary musicianship as he played the organ, directed the choir, and conducted the orchestra at the same time. To the end, he affirmed his dedication to the sacred music whose reign was then work on a secular fugue to write extremely religious chorale fantasia.
But the nineteenth century found Bach's music difficult to perform in the Romantic style-their alternating piano-forte, their rubato, their sharp dynamic contrasts. If Bach's was difficult to adapt to their style, the nineteenth century decided, it was Bach's fault.
Albert Schweitzer, who almost single-handedly revived interest in Bach during the first decade of this century, happily list the few people who accepted and appreciated Bach's genius: Mendelssohn, Goethe, Schumann, Beethoven, Wanger, Liszt. Once the common opinion of only the greatest artists of the nineteenth century, that opinion is now generally accepted. Today we learn harmony from Bach's chorales and even Time Magazine has called him "The Fifth Apostle."
Nonetheless, the Harvard Summer School concert last week provided an example of last century's understanding of Bach. Pina Carmirelli, in a long black, sequined dress, exemplified the Romantic spirit in her performance. During the Bach violin-piano sonata in E minor, she presented one of the last Romantic interpretations of Bach. Schweitzer thinks that the sonata is unplayable today. He says that is can be played on a harpsichord and a violin with loosened bow to bring out the full flavor of the double-stopping. Wagner felt that the timber of the violin and the piano are naturally incompatible. Madame Carmirelli's accompanying pianist, Luis Battle, solved the problem by playing inconspicuously in the background, allowing the violin to dominate the sonata.
Madame Carmirelli attacked the first movement of the sonata at break-neck speed, despite the fact tat in Bach's time, both tempo and dynamics were much less varied than they have been since. Then, the slow movements and thew allegros more closely resembed each other in speed. In dynamics, Bach conceived of his works as built of solid, steady blocks of sound. Madame Carmirelli constantly shifted from pianist to forte and from slow to fast. It is true Bach wrote the sonatas as little "soul-states" as Schweitzer says, but he writes with polyphone rather than her extremes of performance.
The rest of the program matched Madame Carmirelli's Romantic tastes. It included a modern Italian violin sonata and a piano-violin sonata by Ferruccio Busoni. The Busoni piece went smoothly, with thematic-seeming material floating by with all of the grace of the turn of the century. Someone once said of Busoni that "he was hopelessly ahead of his time when he was writing and is now hopelessly Romantic." That adequately describes his sonata. It probably says a lot about the program and the performance at the concert as well.